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Theater Reviews : Daring to Put Desire in Its Place: 'Under the Elms' : Modest company gives O'Neill's wise drama the power and passion it requires.

August 31, 1995|NANCY CHURNIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SOLANA BEACH — Greatness doesn't come easily, which may be why so few companies tackle Eugene O'Neill's "Desire Under the Elms." With his Nobel Prize and his four Pulitzers, O'Neill may have been one of America's greatest playwrights ever, but it isn't easy to do his work justice.

Consider what "Desire" calls for: It's a slow-building melodrama of adultery, infanticide and Oedipal rage. There's a technical complication: mastering the accents and feel of a stark New England countryside in 1850-51, when an impossible old man tragically battles his three sons to retain sole control of the one thing he loves most on earth, his farm. And, there's a passionate love story that has to burst through the stones that are smashed together by these fiercely competing characters as they try to wall each other out.

Under Michael S. Pieper's eloquent direction, the modest North Coast Repertory Theatre dares, like the little engine that could, to climb this daunting mountain. It succeeds, with a gift of a production that is lyrically powerful and tragically wise.

The mood builds steadily. Pieper takes his time establishing the tense relationship between Eben (Howard Bickle) and his more easygoing half-brothers Simeon (John Garcia) and Peter (James Kresser) before their father comes home with his new bride.

One of O'Neill's greatest gifts as a playwright was his slow, inexorable way of stripping through his characters' pretensions until finally they see themselves and each other in all their horrible truth. Bickle unfolds Eben's anger at his father layer by ferocious, shocking layer.

Linda Castro starts out as the scheming, amoral new wife, after whatever part of the farm she can worm out of the old man. Then, slowly, she reveals the hunger that rages under Abby's starched skirts and shows how a desperate search for a home of her own can evolve into a wild grab for love at any cost.

Dale Delmege captures the angry loneliness of the husband/father, Ephraim Cabot, doomed to learn at last how he never has truly loved or been loved.

Performances are key to "Desire," but these characters are rooted to the soil, and Marty Burnett's brilliant set exudes the harshness of life on a farm where so much has to be done by hand. Stones litter the real dirt outside the house; tin cups sit heavily on a rough-hewn wooden table. Laboriously stitched quilts lend warmth to the bedrooms. A broom made of straw roped around whittled wood stands in the corner.

Bryan Schmidtberger's costumes also have that coarse, homespun look. Even the bit of lace adorning the women's dresses has a hand-stitched feel, suggesting that the women had to pay with pricked fingers for every bit of prettiness they could snatch from the wilderness.

*

Tal Ostrowiak's lighting bathes the set with the suggestion of the lush sunrises and sunsets. Katie Rodda's violin adds a mournful twist.

It all adds up to an extraordinary production of a great play, all the more remarkable for being staged by such a seemingly modest company, nestled so unobtrusively in the back of a tony little shopping center. But greatness lies where people dare.

* "Desire Under the Elms," North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987D Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m.; Sept. 17 at 2 p.m. only. Ends Sept. 17. $14 to $16. (619) 481-1055. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Howard Bickle: Eben Cabot

John Garcia: Simeon Cabot

James Kresser: Peter Cabot

Linda Castro: Abby Putnam

Dale Delmege: Ephraim Cabot

Katie Rodda: Fiddler

Claire Manoogian: Girl

Kathy Robson: Essie

Denise Heston: Sarah

John Callas: Reub

Michael Middlemass: Sheriff

Jack Crissman: Farmer

A North Coast Repertory Theatre production of a play by Eugene O'Neill, directed by Michael S. Pieper. Set: Marty Burnett. Costumes: Bryan Schmidtberger. Lights: Tal Ostrowiak. Sound: Michael S. Pieper. Stage manager: Jack Crissman.

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